THURSDAY: The Red Button Home

BY FRANK T. SIKORA

Copyright is held by the author.

1
A GIANT bear — and I mean huge, at least 14 feet tall on its hind legs—confronted me as I stepped out the time machine’s door. The beast growled and roared and swung its face from side to side. Its arms had to be six feet long not including its massive paws. If I could, I would have jumped right back into the machine, pressed the red “return” button and headed home, but that wasn’t possible. The machine needed at least 10 minutes of preparation, plenty of time for the beast to traverse the 20 or so yards separating us, and end this experiment seconds after it had begun. 

I quickly examined my surroundings. I had landed in a small clearing within a dense old growth forest. My sister, Michelle, the genius behind this project, had sent me roughly 9,000 -11,000 years into the past, into a post-glacier world filled with all sorts of fascinating and extinct creatures including mastodons, sabre-toothed tigers, giant sloths, and what appeared to be a short-faced bear standing before me. We chose this era because of the scarcity of humans and our familiarity with the land — near the shores of Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. We thought it would be the safest option.

I turned back toward the bear. It had fallen to all fours and started to move closer, a slow saunter as if it were teasing me. Even on all fours it looked to be nine feet tall. I should have brought a weapon, but all I had was my camera, a classic Nikon Fe2 with a 500mm telephoto lens hanging around my neck. Michelle insisted on no weapons. “Your sole purpose is to test the machine. Launch. Arrive. Snap a few pictures. Return. Weapons will make you reckless. I know you. You’ll want to explore.”

I briefly considered hiding behind the machine, but that wouldn’t do. It was a fragile, freestanding six-by-three-by-three-foot ultra-smart glass structure embedded with five-dimensional quantum-level engineering. Michelle did not intend me to use it as a shield.

The beast growled and roared some more, took another step closer, and paused. Was I supposed to make the next move? Crap. At that moment, I also could have used one of Michelle’s earlier inventions — an anti-gravitational device suitable for skateboards, bicycles, carpets or brooms. Wouldn’t mind flying away right then, but she wouldn’t let me take the prototype—the only working model. Michelle is a spectacularly reticent and paranoid genius who refuses to market her inventions. “No matter how careful you are, how many patents you own, some corporation will find a way to steal your work and screw you, and I’ll be damned if I will give it to the government,” she said. “The world may learn about my work after I’m gone.”

I had two choices: run or present myself as a threat. I chose the latter and started waving my arms and screaming obscenities.

The bear cocked its head. It might have smiled. Great. I pointed the camera and snapped off a rapid series of photos, desperately imagining the clicks of the shutter would drive it off.

Of course, that tactic failed. The beast drew closer. It now stood five yards from me, and it had to weigh a thousand pounds. I should have heeded Michelle’s warning. Before I left, she said, “You don’t have to do this. It’s a big ask. So many unknowns.”

“We’ve lived with unknowns for two years,” I said. “Besides, who else can you trust?”

“There won’t be a rescue party. We don’t have the resources to build another one.”

“No worries. It’ll be fun.”

She grabbed the straps of my backpack, pulled me close and gave me a hug. “Don’t step on any butterflies.”

The beast charged.

2
I sprinted to my right, a mighty 15 or 20 strides before the tangle of the underbrush, grass and saplings sent me to the forest floor. I landed on my side and rolled one-and-a-half times before landing on my back. During my tumble, the camera bounced off my chest and forehead.

I fully expected to be facing a beast ready for an easy lunch with my first time travel trip ending minutes after it started. Instead, I saw only an array of branches against a blue sky. I rose to one knee. I looked left and then right searching for any movement. Nothing. I stood and searched again. The beast was gone. Perhaps, like modern bears, it presented a false charge meant to scare away foes. Perhaps, it recognized that at 6 feet 3 inches and 145 pounds, I was more skin and gristle than meat.

I checked my camera. Save for a little dirt and some grass stains, it appeared to have survived my fall. I snapped a few test shots of the machine. The camera worked and the machine appeared unharmed. At that point, I should have heeded Michelle’s advice and returned to the machine and pressed that red button home.

I didn’t. Michelle was right: I wanted to explore. I ran my hands along my ribs and legs and any spot I could reach. No injuries. Maybe a bruise or two. At 44 years old, alone in a hostile and primitive environment, thousands of years from home and having survived an encounter with one terrifying animal, I felt remarkably healthy and optimistic, the first time in almost two years. I also felt something I had not expected. It wasn’t peace or happiness. It was more than contentment.

It was intrigue.

I found myself interested in the world — this world, and not a world dealing with the aftermath of an 18-month pandemic, a world only I had the opportunity to escape. No, living in this world would be about survival predicated solely on my skill set and not the prejudices and foolishness and follies of others. No politicians. No television. No dreary news updates. No phones. No social media.

I took out my compass and faced the northwest. I saw hints of the lake peeking through the trees. Michelle’s machine had landed where she intended. I brushed the dirt off my pants and started walking, careful of my steps but without the anxiety I had felt for the past few years. The irony wasn’t lost on me. Back home, walking down the streets I felt like prey — where every stranger’s breath was a lethal weapon.

As I walked, I thought about making a life in this world. If I returned with proper gear, could I survive? I had spent many weeks alone in the wilds of Montana and Colorado. Just me. Hunting. Fishing. Exploring. Over the years, I had grown comfortable with my solitude. I was a lonely middle-aged man who never had a date, a man who sought further isolation when on vacation.

When I reached the beach, I half expected to see one of the many lighthouses popular with tourists back home: maybe kids looking for shells, families having picnics, or a fishing trawler on the horizon. No. I saw only birds lazing on the shore. No bears or other beasts.

I took a few more pictures including a self-portrait and a short video documenting my experience. Then I walked about a mile down the shore—a hands-in-my-pockets stroll. I stopped at an outcropping of rocks. I placed the camera in my backpack, slipping it between my rain gear and medical supplies. I scrambled to the furthest rocks extending into the lake. I slipped once, but I did not fall.

When I found a suitable spot, I took off my backpack and laid it at my feet. It was time for a long think. Did I want to live alone in a world where few humans existed, and did I want to live in a world without Michelle, who needed my company as much as I needed hers?

3
After about an hour of thinking and a longer nap, I headed back to the machine, using my footsteps in the sand as a guide. During the time I spent on the shore, the temperature had dropped to a point I felt a chill. To the west, clouds had gathered, and a storm appeared to be looming. I drew my jacket from my pack and slipped it on. I also took out my camera ready to document the remainder of my journey. Before the pandemic, I had made a modest living taking pictures for community rags and high school senior yearbooks. 

While walking I considered the conversation I needed to have with Michelle. I knew she wouldn’t want to disappear with me into the past. Michelle didn’t enjoy the outdoors. During the fall when the colors turned, she might accompany me on a day hike, but only if there wasn’t any chance of rain, or if it wasn’t too hot or too muggy. She definitely wouldn’t camp. She didn’t like critters, particularly the slithering sort and the buggy kind. But those weren’t the primary reasons. Michelle loved her work. She took great pride in her cleverness. She believed her skills could not be challenged. Some days, I would spend hours just watching her work in her lab fascinated and a bit jealous of her contentment. While I documented her work, she spent hours talking to me as if I understood what she was doing. So gifted. So secretive. If only she would share her gifts with the world.

Michelle also believes she will find love. Though she only had a few more dates than my zero, Michelle believes there is a man out there who will admire her brilliance and respect her desire for privacy, a man who will love her because she is different. I wish I shared her optimism.

When I reached the machine, I was tempted to press that red button and step out, sending the machine home without me, just a video note on my camera explaining how I felt and an apology. I didn’t. Michelle deserved better.

I took one more look around. I wasn’t afraid of being attacked by a bear or giant sloth or any creature. I preferred an enemy I could see. Hell, unless threatened or hungry, most animals prefer to social distance. I hoped I could convince Michelle to let me use the time machine. I hoped she would allow me to explore a world where 14-foot-tall bears existed, where the night sky was unencumbered by city lights, and where a man could walk for months without seeing another human, a place where solitude was a virtue. She had to allow that, a little trip now and then, but leaving her alone for good? No, I could not leave Michelle alone.

So, I re-entered the machine. I took a long, sad breath and pressed the red button. I pressed it knowing that I was going back to a world struggling to recover from a worldwide catastrophe that left scores dead, millions financially ruined, and probably more emotionally wrecked. I pressed that damned red button because I wouldn’t abandon my sister whom I dearly loved. I pressed that fucking red button knowing that I was returning to a time and a place I no longer considered home.

One comment

  1. Walter Giersbach

    Time travel is a well-worn trope, but Frank Sikora nails it perfectly. This story resonated deeply. It’s well-written and taps into thoughts we may all have had at one time or another.

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